Is It the Thought That Counts?
Well-intentioned aid is having adverse impact in communities around the world

By Leah Walters
At one point or another, almost everyone has given a Facebook friend a virtual pat on the back for his or her selfless volunteer trip to Central America. Maybe you’ve known the satisfaction of leaving last season’s Forever 21 haul in a green donation bin at the grocery store parking lot, or walked a little lighter in those trendy buy-one-give-one shoes.

We all do it. Americans hate to leave a call for help unanswered, so we supply. Without a second thought, well-meaning philanthropic organizations send second-hand clothing, packaged meals and a stream of empowered and often under-educated high school students to help whoever needs it. Good for us.

Except flooding those developing markets with American goods and services can have adverse consequences do-gooders don’t consider. TOMS Shoes, for example, operates on a buy-one-give-one model, donating shoes through partner charities. As of July 2013, they had given more than 10 million pairs of shoes to kids in more than 60 countries.

Their cause is noble, but these charity champions in reality have marginal impact. Laura Freschi, research director at New York University’s Development Research Institute, said TOMS’ charitable efforts are insufficient and unsustainable. TOMS shoes are intended to prevent children from contracting diseases, but a more viable tactic could be improving sanitation. If TOMS funded new latrines, the spread of waste-born disease would decrease, and the effects would outlast a pair of canvas slip-ons.

Freschi also warns that TOMS and similar companies take opportunities away from local economies. In a story aired on Public Radio International, Freschi said, “It’s important to acknowledge that in some cases the buy-one-give-one model practiced this way could be harmful to those local producers and sellers.”

When first-world donations appear, almost out of thin air, local suppliers can actually end up jobless. A 2005 report by Garth Frazer of the University of Toronto estimates used-clothing imports are accountable for 40 percent of the decline in apparel and textile manufacturing.

Despite its pitfalls, “voluntourism,” or service travel, can be an attractive alternative to traditional summer vacations or spring breaks. Let’s be honest: A two-week stint at an orphanage is perfect admissions-essay fodder and a guaranteed new Facebook profile photo. But if you head into a service project you know little about, you might leave bigger problems behind.

Pippa Biddle, a 21-year-old New York entrepreneur, came to that realization after years of enthusiastic voluntourism participation. Biddle started her stint as a voluntourist while going abroad with her high school to build a school in Tanzania and later became instrumental in structuring a camp for HIV-positive children in the Dominican Republic. She soon saw that these projects could do more harm than good.

“In the simplest way, we literally export everything they have of value and import white people to fix their problems,” she said. “If you think letting an unskilled foreigner come in and tell you what to do with a country constitutes a long-term aid solution, you’re kidding yourself.”

Biddle believes voluntourists show up and create two problems. First, unskilled volunteers can disrupt the community they came to help, and the projects they complete often don’t suit the community’s needs.

“You’ll try to build a school, but there won’t be any teachers or students. You’ll try to build a hospital without getting any supplies,” she said.

The second problem is more systemic. Aid groups come into a community and promise their work will save it, then pack up and leave a week later having made little impact.

“Imagine the psyche of a child,” Biddle said. “Imagine if you had a best friend come and promise to make your life better, but every week you had to switch best friends because they left to go somewhere infinitely better than where you are, and they didn’t take you with them.”

Nick Kontogeorgopoulos, a professor of international political economy at Puget Sound University, spent time in northern Thailand researching the tourists who volunteer there and the organizations that enable their service. He isn’t quick to dismiss the merits of voluntourism, but like Biddle, he believes it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. He has a different idea of how it functions.

“I see volunteering as more community service, rather than development. That’s an important distinction because when a person does community service they’ll go to a place and tutor a kid in English or work at a shelter, but they’re not expected to change the underlying structures of poverty or marginalization.”

Largely, the work tourists are doing abroad can’t and won’t have a long-term developmental impact. But that doesn’t mean Kontogeorgopoulos thinks it should be written off.

“As far as community service has a beneficial impact, then volunteering does as well. It’s not going to change the development path of Haiti, or Bolivia or Thailand. And that’s OK,” Kontogeorgopoulos said.

Biddle thinks the harm of voluntourism outweighs the good. If you’re going to travel, accept the fact that you’re a tourist. “You’re going to hurt a lot fewer people because you’re accepting your role as a visitor rather than this idea that you’re joining a community that you’re not really joining,” she said. She suggests an alternative by going the “think global, act local” route. Volunteering locally is more fiscally responsible and every bit as satisfying.

Above all, Kontogeorgopoulos and Biddle recommend setting realistic expectations for what is achievable. You can’t simply spend a week putting up a wall of schoolhouse — or even four weeks putting up four walls — and return home believing you’ve endowed a needy community with education.

I think we can make a positive change abroad, but these communities deserve more from us. They deserve problem solvers, not problem makers. They deserve respect and cooperation. In other words, we’ve got to first understand what they need, then work along with them to empower them (water.org does this well).

There are a lot of ways to lend a hand, but often, volunteers and donors get wrapped up in what is tangible — a new pair of shoes or a soccer camp for the underprivileged — instead of actions that can make a profound impact.

We need to challenge ourselves to look closely at philanthropic opportunities and do extensive research before we invest our time, money and energy in costly volunteer trips that ultimately leave behind greater troubles.

If we’re going to do “good,” we ought to do it well.

Photo by Leah Walters



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